A few months ago on the Penn campus I heard a Chinese guy and a girl having a conversation in Mandarin, and I was surprised when he twice said, "Wo3 ming2bai4 le." The rest of his speech was standard, but then he came out with this strange transformation of "Wo3 ming2bai le". Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised, because I've heard the exact same thing before. Nonetheless, it still sounded odd to me, since from first-year Mandarin on I've had it drilled into me that this sentence should be pronounced "Wo3 ming2bai le" and that any other pronunciation of ming2bai was wrong. This was reinforced by the canonical pronunciation ming2bai given in dictionaries and other authoritative sources.
Yet you can hear the 4th tone for yourself in the recording here, even though the phonetic annotation is given as míngbai (neutral tone on the second syllable).
How do we account for this? Is it some sort of emphasis, with stress on the second syllable, which normally should be neutral?
It is universally recognized that Sinitic languages are tonal, but if people play fast and free with the tones this way, how can intelligibility be maintained?
On the other hand, are tonal languages like Chinese subject to ad hoc change of tone or other phonological aspects of speech the same way as non-tonal languages?
One native Pekingese speaker demonstrated for me that she pronounces the second syllable of 明白 three different ways, depending upon the situation:
1. míngbai — when making a normal, declarative sentence
2. míngbái — when pointedly asking someone else if he understands
3. míngbài — when affirming emphatically that she understands
I've also heard some people drop the neutral tone on the second syllable so low that it sounds like a third tone (what some teachers of Mandarin call a "half-third tone".
We have previously discussed on Language Log the phenomenon of intonation and stress superseding tone in, among other places, this post: "When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/2013) (see also the cited links and comments thereto).
Or perhaps the change from míngbai to míngbài is simply a kind of dissimilation, since the two syllables of míngbai 明白, if pronounced separately, would be míng bái, which would result in a kind of tone sandhi, viz., míngbài.
San Duanmu explains:
Yes, this is called 轻声变去声 (T0 to T4). An example is pu2tao2 'grape', which becomes pu2tao0, and then pu2tao4. The rare thing about that speaker is that he uses all the three versions at the same time. T0 to T4 usually happens when the preceding tone is T2, and the change is probably phonetic at first, then reinterpreted as H spreading: LH-0 –> LH-L –> LH-HL
According to Jonathan Smith,
I know what you're referring to and think the realization of the neutral tone in this particular tonal context is easily reinterpretable as the full fourth tone — it's likely that the speaker here would still report he had produced the neutral tone, but perhaps given enough momentum, this sort of thing can lead to real category change? I've actually often wondered if the Beijing tendency to pronounce 室 in the third rather than the fourth tone got started with tonal neutralization in certain contexts (particularly after fourth tone), with realizations of those neutral syllables gradually taking on third-tone-ish contours.
In the case of míngbai (underlying míngbái) –> míngbài, it is the second syllable that changes, but in the case of 买马 ("buy a horse"), it is the first syllable that changes: underlying mǎi mǎ becomes mái mǎ (this [two third tones in succession] is the most common form of tone sandhi, and usually the only one that is taught). Yet there are plenty of other categories of tone sandhi in Mandarin that generally are not taught, but that naturally (physiologically) are used in daily speech. For example, my name is Méi Wéihéng 梅维恒, but only a neophyte would attempt to pronounce it that way, and it would sound very awkward if he did. Instead, it becomes Méi Wēihéng.
At Harvard, Professsor Rulan Chao Pian, daughter of Y. R. Chao, prepared a lengthy pronunciation guide that was used for the first several weeks of the introduction to Mandarin course. She developed it on the basis of notes made by her father, who had a particular interest in such phonological niceties. I used that guide in a summer school Mandarin course I taught at Harvard one year, and I remember that it included many different types of tone sandhi, each of which is real, but few of which are ever taught systematically, if at all.
So, it's certainly not just míngbai –> míngbài, that we have to contend with, but a whole host of phonological changes in spoken Mandarin that are different from what is to be found in textbooks and dictionaries. Here are just a few examples:
wǒ kànjiàn le 我看见了 ("I saw") instead of wǒ kànjian le
wǒ dè 我的! ("mine!") instead of wǒ de
shénmè 什么?! ("what?!") instead of shénme
Gloria Bien discusses a particularly complicated case that has also puzzled me for a long time:
The tone change I've mused about, and maybe even wrote about before, is between yīhuǐr , yìhuǐr, and yíhuìr. The "yi" is pronounced quickly, so sometimes I hear it as first tone, though the "rule" says "yi" here should be fourth tone. The characters chosen for it are 一会儿. Wenlin says 会 should be pronounced 3rd tone when it means "moment." But I often hear yíhuìr, with an actual 2nd tone on the "yi" and what sounds to me like an emphatic fourth. But maybe it sounds emphatic because I'm expecting a third tone. I have never heard it without the "er" sound. I have heard "yíhuìr" (2nd, 4th) even from Chinese language teachers.
For the record, the individual tones of the underlying morphosyllables that constitute this expression are:
4 ("can; meet; conference; society; opportunity", etc. — about two dozen other meanings)
2 ("child; son; youth; noun suffix") — as a sign of retroflexion (as in the present case), of course, it has no tone
Now, if I've heard this expression once, I've heard it ten thousand times, and it was always pronounced thus (giving a complete sentence):
As written in characters, that would be 等一会儿 ("wait a moment"), which, according to dictionaries, would supposedly be děng yīhuì'er, but if I heard someone say that, it would grate on my ears. My wife and all of her friends always said "děng yīhuěr", and I can guarantee that the final third tone was emphatic and clear. The mainland dictionaries I've looked at, including the great Hanyu da cidian [HDC], do not even list a third tone pronunciation for 会 (though HDC, 5.782-3, besides huì, also gives kuài and kuò for specialized meanings).
So where does the third tone reading, which is the only one I've known for the expression yīhuǐ'er, come from? The impressive new Běijīng huà cídiǎn 北京话词典 (Dictionary of Pekingese), by Gāo Àijūn 高艾军 and Fù Mín 傅民, does give the pronunciation yīhuǐr, as well as yīhuǐzi, with a different nominal suffix (see p. 984). In both cases, Gao and Fu explain the unusual pronunciation for 会 (huǐ instead of the normal huì) by saying that it is "an old reading"). I'm beginning to wonder whether 会 (trad. 會) is the right character for this morpheme after all.
The huǐ part of yīhuǐr (yīhuěr) and yīhuǐzi may have been a morpheme in the spoken language for which there was no known character. But under the compulsion to find a character for every syllable in the language, someone may have arbitrarily assigned this syllable to 会 (trad. 會). (See the discussion of běnzì 本字 ["original character"] here and in other Language Log posts.) The fact that some people are now pronouncing yīhuǐr as yīhuìr would be an example of how script can influence speech.
[Thanks to Jonathan Smith, San Duanmu, Gloria Bien, Fangyi Cheng, Liwei Jiao, Stephan Stiller, Randy Alexander, Ziwei He, Wei Shao]